July 10, 2014

2014 SEC Media Days: UF to send its three most notable players

GAINESVILLE -- The 2014 SEC Media Days begin Monday, and Florida will send its three most marquee -- and important -- student-athletes to Hoover, Alabama. 

Redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Driskel, sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and junior defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. will all join coach Will Muschamp at the circus event, representing Florida on a frenzied Day 1.

The Gators are one of just two schools to not bring a senior, but Hargreaves III (first-team) and Fowler Jr. (second-team) were All-SEC standouts in 2013, while Driskel enters this season as starter for the third straight year. 

Last summer, Driskel attended Media Days, joined by Dominique Easley and Jon Halapio. 

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July 09, 2014

SEC Network coming to Cox Communications

GAINESVILLE -- Florida fans can rest easy. 

Cox Communications, the major cable provider in Gainesville and much of North Central Florida, will carry the new SEC Network upon its launch on Aug. 14, ESPN and Cox announced Wednesday. 

“Cox is home to some of the biggest fans with five SEC schools in our markets,” Jill Campbell, executive vice president and chief operating officer, Cox Communications said in a release.  

“This is great news for alumni and fans across our footprint who will enjoy all the action and rivalries that have become synonymous with SEC sports.” 

SEC Commissioner Mike Slive added: “The addition of Cox is another very important step in the development of the SEC Network, bringing millions more viewers nationwide to the network when it launches on August 14.  As one of the largest cable television distributors in the U.S., including five states in the SEC footprint, this agreement with Cox has a significant impact on exposure for the SEC.”

The SEC Network will air 45 football games next season, including two of Florida's first three games (Eastern Michigan, Sept. 6; Kentucky, Sept. 13). 

Former Gators legend Tim Tebow will appear on the network as co-host of SEC Nation, a travelling pre-game show similar to College Gameday. 

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July 07, 2014

Names, Names, Names: Watch List month is here

GAINESVILLE -- It is time. 

 

We’ve officially reached the tipping point of the summer, where half (not exactly a scientific approximation) the players in college football are named to random preseason watch lists.

These lists are absurd, only relevant due to the fact there’s minimal college football content in early July.

But alas, we must note even what isn’t particularly noteworthy.

Florida’s top two standouts -- defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III -- were named to the 2014 Bednarik Award watch list Monday, honoring the nation’s best defensive player.

Fowler Jr., a rising junior who led the Gators in tackles for loss (10.5) last season, and Hargreaves III, one of the country’s top defensive backs as just a freshman, join 74 other players on the list.

Both defensive studs were also named to the Nagurski watch list, another award given to the nation's best defensive player (Football Writers Association of America). 

Meanwhile, UF quarterback Jeff Driskel was tabbed to the Maxwell Award watch list for the nation’s best offensive player. Nearly every notable quarterback, tailback and receiver from the power conferences were named. 

Fifth-year senior Max Garcia, a 12-game starter for the Gators in 2013, was named to the 2014 Rimington Trophy watch list -- this despite never starting a single career game at center. Last season, Garcia mainly played left guard and left tackle but is transitioning to center following the graduation of Jon Harrison. 

In a bit of a suprise, Virginia transfer tight end Jake McGee was not named to the Mackey Award watch list. McGee led all Cavaliers in receptions (43) and yards (395) in 2013 and is considered an ideal fit (and upgrade) for offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's spread system. 

D.J. Humphries, Florida's left tackle who endured an injury-riddled 2013, was named to the preseason watch list for the 2014 Outland Trophy, an award given to the nation's best (offensive or defensive) lineman. Humphries is a former five-star prospect who hopes this season is his breakout campaign. 

MON., JULY 7

Bednarik Award -- DE/LB Dante Fowler Jr., CB Vernon Hargreaves III

Maxwell Award -- QB Jeff Driskel

TUES., JULY 8 

Mackey Award -- ______

Rimgington Trophy -- C Max Garcia 

WED., JULY 9

Lou Groza Award -- ____

Ray Guy Award -- _____

THURS., JULY 10

Bronko Nagurski Trophy -- DE/LB Dante Fowler Jr., CB Vernon Hargreaves III 

Outland Trophy -- OT D.J. Humphries

FRI., JULY 11

Jim Thorpe Award -- CB Vernon Hargreaves III

*** This post will be updated daily, as the NCAA will release watch lists for the next two weeks.

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July 01, 2014

Gators-Hurricans renew rivalry

GAINESVILLE -- The Gators and Hurricanes will square off after all in 2014 -- just on the hardwood.

Florida and Miami will play on Nov. 17 in Gainesville to kickstart a home-and-home series with its in-state rival, UF announced Tuesday.

Although a return date in Coral Gables has yet to be scheduled, the two schools are likely to square off again in South Florida sometime in November 2015. 

The last time to two teams met, the Gators trumped the Hurricanes 74-60 at home in the second round of the 2009 NIT. 

Florida leads the all-time series 45-22, winning 15 of the last 17 showdowns. 

Meanwhile, Florida also announced official plans for renovating the O’Connell Center, with Davis Architects, CPPI Construction Management and TLC Engineering green lighting the $45-50 million project.  

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June 11, 2014

Phillips resigns, Leak to take over WRs

GAINESVILLE -- For the fourth time in as many years, Florida will have a new wide receivers coach.

In a shocking announcement, Joker Phillips, a 26-year coaching veteran who joined the Gators’ staff in December 2012, resigned for “personal reasons,” the school announced Wednesday.

ESPN, citing anonymous sources, reported Phillips was forced to resign due to potential NCAA recruiting violations.

"I'm thankful for the opportunity that the University of Florida and Will Muschamp provided to me and my family, but at this time I have decided to step down from my position on the UF coaching staff for personal reasons," Phillips said in a statement.

"I appreciate Joker's contributions to our program and wish him and his wife, Leslie, nothing but the best in the future," head coach Will Muschamp added.

Phillips was also Florida’s recruiting coordinator, but the more pressing concern is UF’s merry-go-round coaching position.

Former Gators quarterback Chris Leak, a graduate assistant and quality control coach at Florida in 2013, was promoted and will replace Phillips as the wide receivers coach.

While Muschamp touted Leak as a “bright young coach,” the former national champion starting quarterback has minimal coaching experience and is the second graduate assistant in three seasons to either be promoted or coach the receivers despite the lack of coaching acumen.

"He is one of the all-time Gator greats and being at Florida is very important to him,” Muschamp said.

“He has been working with Coach [Kurt] Roper and our offensive staff and is very familiar with our players and new system."

Leak was a four-year starter at Florida (2003-06), amassing school records in yards (11, 213), completions (895) and attempts (1,458) while leading the Gators to their second school national championship in 2006.

"I appreciate the opportunity that Coach Muschamp has given me and my family," he said.

"It's an honor to be coaching at my alma mater where I have so many fond memories both on and off the field. We have a tremendous coaching staff, a great group of players and a support system in place and I'm excited to be a part of it."

More to come. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

May 30, 2014

Friday Fodder: Game times set, recruiting news, UF-UM update

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GAINESVILLE -- Florida fans will receive a brief reprieve from the heat this fall, as the Southeastern Conference announced the Gators’ season opener against Idaho (Aug. 30) will be a 7 p.m. kickoff on ESPNU. 

Earlier in the week, CBS announced the annual Florida-Georgia game in Jacksonville (Nov. 1) will be televised on the network for the 12th straight year with a 3:30 p.m. kickoff. 

The Gators now have four game times set, as UF’s home tilts against Eastern Michigan (Sept. 6) and Kentucky (Sept. 13) are scheduled for 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., respectively, with both games airing on the SEC Network. 

FAMILY CONNECTION

Three-star defensive tackle Andrew Ivie, younger brother of Florida sophomore defensive end Joey, committed to the Gators Thursday, per multiple recruiting services. 

The 6-foot-3, 288-pound Pasco product chose Florida over Ole Miss, Mississippi State and UCF. 

Ivie is the eighth prospect verbally pledged to UF’s 2015 class. 

UF-UM UPDATE

The SEC Spring Meetings concluded Friday, and while league commission Mike Slive announced several major tidbits from the week’s worth of discussions, the Florida-Miami series was a minor noteworthy topic early in the week. 

According to Associated Press reporter Mark Long, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said there’s “mutual interest” in renewing the Miami-Florida football series, but only as a “one-game deal at a neutral site.”

Foley’s quote on the matter hardly makes a potential showdown a reality (in the near or distant future), but it does clear up exactly how “receptive” Florida is in “renewing the series.”

The rub moving forward is how much cash can/will a neutral contest generate and what exactly constitutes a neutral site?

FILTHY RICH

The league announced record revenue in 2013, as $309.6 million will be distributed amongst the 14 schools -- an average of $20.9 million per university. With the league introducing its own TV network this summer, that number could double next season. 

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May 22, 2014

Donovan courted by NBA

GAINESVILLE -- Following another Final Four run, Florida coach Billy Donovan has been contacted by multiple NBA teams this offseason, he said Thursday.

Donovan stressed the conversations have been "brief," and he “fully plans on being back [in Gainesville] next season.”

“It’s always flattering, but at the same time, I’ve always said that I’m very happy here and like it here,” Donovan explained. 

“Jeremy [Foley] has been great here. I like where our program’s at and the direction we’re going.”

Florida’s coach, always guarded when speaking on the NBA following his flip-flop commitment on the Orlando Magic in 2007, didn’t disclose which NBA teams he talked to, but various media reports from league insiders said the Cleveland Cavilers and the Minnesota Timberwolves were among those interested.

“I got a few calls from a couple NBA teams. I’m going to leave it at that. After the Orlando situation, that’s all I’m saying. That’s it. So I’m not going to get into, ‘He’s lying, he’s not being truthful.’ I got a couple of calls, that’s all it is.”

Donovan has led the Gators to four Final Fours in 18 seasons and recently signed a contract extension to keep him at Florida through the 2018-19 season.

NOTHING CHANGED

Damontre Harris, officially removed from UF's roster Wednesday, did not “earn his way back” on the team this offseason, Donovan said.

“Damontre is not a bad kid, he’s a good kid, but really undisciplined and unreliable in a lot of ways. … The things we were talking about is like going to class, being on time, being in the weight room, lifting, showing up to practice, those kind of things. Basically we evaluated him over that two and a half, three months over that second semester and clearly nothing had changed at all.”

Donovan has not spoken with Harris face-to-face since the end of the season, with Harris skipping a meeting on his future sometime in recent weeks. 

INJURY UPDATES

Rutgers transfer guard Eli Carter is “80-85 percent” after missing most of the 2013-14 season recovering from a gruesome leg injury sustained with the Scarlet Knights in February 2013. Donovan said trainers expect Carter to be 100 percent by fall camp in October.

Meanwhile, guard Dillion Graham, another medical redshirt last season, continues a slow, painful recovery from bone spurs in both hips and is not expected to be cleared for any contact until September-October.

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May 21, 2014

Harris officially done

Orl-gators1520121010150914(Courtesy Gatorzone.com)

GAINESVILLE -- Damontre Harris ran out of chances. 

As first reported by Jon Rothstein of CBSSports.com, Florida’s 6-foot-10 center is no longer with the team -- a permanent move following multiple disciplinary issues and second chances. 

UF later confirmed Rothstein’s report, and coach Billy Donovan is likely to speak on the issue Thursday at his post-spring wrap-up press conference. 

But Wednesday officially ended a rollercoaster ride for the troubled transfer from South Carolina. Harris, a member of the All-SEC Defensive team in 2011-12, never played a minute for the Gators -- this despite being eligible during Florida’s Final Four run last season. 

Donovan suspended Harris indefinitely before the start of the 2013-14 season, later dismissing the big-man from the team during Christmas break. However, Harris pleaded for another chance -- a request Donovan granted.

Harris practiced with the Gators during their NCAA Tournament run, but Donovan refused to allow Harris to play citing chemistry, values and respect. 

Like former embattled guard Scottie Wilbekin, Harris was given conditions follow before ever seeing the court again -- stipulations likely not completed this spring/summer. 

Harris’ loss is hardly a surprise considering Florida recently landed 7-foot shot blocking sensation John Egbunu from South Florida

While Egbunu, with three years of eligibility remaining, must sit out the 2014-15 season due to transfer rules, he will be on scholarship -- an issue resolved with Harris’ dismissal. 

With Egbunu’s addition, the Gators were one over the NCAA scholarship limit (13) before Harris was released. 

More to come. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

May 19, 2014

Scheduling: SEC rotation set; UM-UF to renew rivalry???

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GAINESVILLE -- The Southeastern Conference announced a 12-year rotation (2014-2025) of non-divisional opponents Monday, as the Gators now know their league schedule for the next dozen seasons. 

Earlier this month, league presidents voted to stick with the status quo -- maintaining its eight-game conference schedule under the 6 (division games) – 1 (one permanent cross-division opponent) – 1 (a rotating cross-division opponent) format. 

The 12-year rotation starts this fall, as Florida travels to Alabama in late September. 

The Gators won’t see the Crimson Tide again until 2021 and coach Will Muschamp can only hope to still be around to see one of his favorite non-traditional rivalries: Florida-Auburn (2019).

With Texas A&M on the docket in 2017, the Gators will travel to Texas to play Michigan to open the season and host the Aggies later in the year. 

Florida's future cross-division foes...

YEAR

OPPONENT

2014

at Alabama

2015

Ole Miss

2016

at Arkansas

2017

Texas A&M

2018

at Mississippi State

2019

Auburn

2020

at Ole Miss

2021

Alabama

2022

at Texas A&M

2023

Arkansas

2024

at Auburn

2025

Mississippi State

Meanwhile…

UM-UF RIVALRY BACK ON?

Possibly.

According to the Miami Herald’s own Barry Jackson, UM athletic director Blake James said Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley was “receptive” when recently discussing renewing the in-state series.

Due to financial reasons (see: seven home games), Florida has stipulated the series must continue at neutral-sites only -- an idea James is currently juggling.

“I would have to think about Orlando,” James said. “That’s not real neutral but it’s an easy distance to our campus.”

Not two days after the Hurricanes’ upset victory over the Gators last fall -- a game many presumed would be the final game in the series for the foreseeable futures -- James made a brilliant PR move suggesting the two teams continue the rivalry. It was empty posturing, but now UM appears to be open to a neutral site contest.

So what say you: Do you want the two schools to renew a rich rivalry -- even solely at neutral sites Thoughts on Florida's future SEC schedule?

Pop off.   

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

May 11, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Four Gators selected, several others signs UFA contracts

New-England-Patriots-Waste-First-Round-Draft-Pick-on-Dominique-Easley-

GAINESVILLE -- The 2014 NFL Draft is over, with four former Florida Gators drafted -- half as many as last season. 

Defensive tackle Dominique Easley was selected No. 29 overall by the New England Patriots, the second straight season a Gators defensive lineman was nabbed in the first round. 

Following a quiet Friday evening (rounds 2-3), cornerback Jaylen Watkins didn’t have to wait long on Saturday, going No. 101 to the Philadelphia Eagles with the first pick in the fourth round. Later, linebacker Ronald Powell was selected by the New Orleans Saints and guard Jon Halpio joined Easley in New England. 

Below is a recap of Florida’s draftees (as well as a number of undrafted free agents). Conspicuously absent: cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, who both saw their stock’s crash to rock bottom. After failing to find a professional home Saturday, both prospects are free agents, waiting to join a team sometime in the near future.  

DRAFTEES

DT Dominique Easley, Round 1, New England Patriots (No. 29)

CB Jaylen Watkins, Round 4, Philadelphia Eagles (No. 101)

LB Ronald Powell, Round 5, New Orleans Saints (No. 169)

OG Jon Halapio, Round 6, New England Patriots (No. 179)

UNDRAFTED FREE AGENTS

DT Damien Jacobs, Buffalo Bills

LB Darrien Kitchens, Buffalo Bills

WR Trey Burton, Philadelphia Eagles

WR/KR Solomon Patton, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

C Jon Harrison, Indianapolis Colts

Meanwhile, versatile offensive lineman Kyle Koehne earned a rookie-camp tryout with the Atlanta Falcons. 

UPDATE

Monday, Roberson signed a free agent deal with the St. Louis Rams and Purifoy agreed to a contract with the Indianapolis Colts. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton 

May 08, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Gators, anyone?

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GAINESVILLE -- Following weeks (or months) of over-analyzation, endless mock drafts and the psychoanalysis of 10,000 wannabe Dr. Frazier Crane's, the 2014 NFL Draft is finally upon us. 

The frustratingly-fascinating three-day event kicks off tonight (8 p.m., ESPN/NFL Network), only the first round figures to be an uneventful evening for the Gators. 

But anything can happen.

For the second time in three years, Florida is unlikely to see a former player selected in the first round, as talented defensive tackle Dominique Easley -- a former top 10 overall prospect before a second non-contact knee injury -- stands as the lone semi-possible late-first round pick. 

Easley is a dominant three-technique defender who continues to climb teams’ draft boards following an impressive private pro day and a purported clean bill of health, but he figures to be a mid-second round pick and the first former Florida player off the board. 

In all, the Gators could have as many as eight players drafted, but the majority of ex-Gators are likely to wait until Saturday (rounds 4-7) to hear their names called. 

Enigmatic cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy were once touted as possible first rounders, but both prospects could be drafted after fellow UF cornerback Jaylen Watkins. 

Former No. 1 overall recruit Ronald Powell, a player with durability concerns but potential as a pass rushing specialist, could be selected anywhere between rounds 4-6, while wideout Solomon Patton and offensive guard Jon Halapio figure to be Florida’s lone offensive players drafted. 

Below are my Gators draft projections. They’re surely to be wrong. 

Make your own picks in the comments section and use this blog as a thread for the next couple of days. 

I’ll update the piece as Gators start to come off the board. 

DRAFTEES 

DT Dominique Easley - 2nd Round  1st Round - No. 29 overall, New England Patriots  

* The Miami Herald's story on Easley's selection... 

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Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 10.57.00 AM

CB Jaylen Watkins - 3rd Round  4th Round - No. 101, Philadelphia Eagles 

CB Marcus Roberson - 4th Round

CB Loucheiz Purifoy - 5th Round

LB/DE Ronald Powell - 5th Round  5th Round - No. 169, New Orleans Saints

OG Jon Halapio - 6th Round  6th Round - No. 179, New England Patriots 

WR Solomon Patton - 7th Round

UNDRAFTED FREE AGENTS

C Jon Harrison

WR Trey Burton

DT Damien Jacobs

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UF-KU rematch date set

GAINESVILLE -- Florida will travel to Kansas on December 5 for a non-conference showdown against the Jayhawks as part of the 2014 SEC/BIG 12 Challenge, the leagues announced Wednesday. 

The marquee matchup, a rematch of last season’s inaugural SEC/BIG 12 Challenge when UF trumped KU 67-61 in Gainesviile, is one of 10 games between the two conferences in 10 days. 

ESPN’s family of networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, WatchESPN) will televise the event.

“The ability to showcase SEC basketball in this kind of inter-conference competition makes this a unique and exciting event for our coaches, student-athletes and fans,” SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said in a statement.   

ACADEMIC SUCCESS 

Florida’s men’s basketball team was publicly honored by the NCAA for its “outstanding academic performance,” scoring in the top 10 percent nationally in the Academic Progress Rate. 

The Gators were the only SEC basketball team to be recognized, as Florida set a conference record with eight players named to the academic honor roll. 

According to the university, the APR “provides a real-time look a the team’s academic success each semester by tracking the progress of each student-athlete on scholarship.”

Last weekend, six players participated in UF’s spring commencement ceremonies, as Billy Donovan, Jacob Kurt, Patric Young, Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Will Yeguete all graduated. 

YOUNG TO ATTEND COMBINE

Florida's former senior center has accepted an invite to this month's NBA Draft combine in Chicago (May 14-18), according to draftexpress.com.

The 6-foot-9, 245-pound frontcourt freak averaged 11 points and 6.2 rebounds this past season, anchoring one of the stingiest defenses in the country and earning defensive player of the year honors in the process. 

Per multiple mock drafts, Young projects as a late second round selection. 

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May 01, 2014

Gators debut on SEC Network in Week 2

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GAINESVILLE -- Two of Florida’s first three games in 2014 will be broadcast on the new SEC Network, ESPN announced Thursday. 

The Gators’ Sept. 6 game against Eastern Michigan (4 p.m.) and Sept. 13 SEC opener against Kentucky (7:30 p.m.) will air on the network. 

According to the release, all 14 league teams will appear on the SEC Network within the first four weeks of the season.  

INJURY REPORT

During the conference’s spring teleconference Wednesday, Florida coach Will Muschamp updated the status of several sidelined players set to be cleared this week. 

Tailback Matt Jones, who missed spring practice recovering from a serious knee injury, is “on target,” Muschamp said. 

Also “on track” are linebackers Alex Anzalone (shoulder) and Matt Rolin (knee), as well as sixth-year senior wideout Andre Debose. 

“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Muschamp said. 

QUOTABLE 

“It’s fine with me. I was for eight games. It isn’t all fair all the time, that’s part of it. Whatever format they went with eight games I was good with it. … There’s no perfect answer to please everybody. We did what is best for our league. We all have hidden agendas whatever university we represent.”

-- Muschamp on the finalization of the future SEC schedule

2015 CLASS ADDS ANOTHER

West Orange cornerback/tailback/athlete Jalen Julius committed to Florida late Wednesday night, according to multiple recruiting services. 

Later, Julius, a three-star prospect, confirmed his verbal pledge on Twitter. 

Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 3.43.00 PMJulius is Florida’s seventh commit in its 2015 class.  

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April 27, 2014

Status Quo: SEC announces future schedule format

The Southeastern Conference opted to stick with what was working.

Following a purported 10-4 vote by league presidents, the SEC announced Sunday it is maintaining its eight-game football scheduling format, adding a strength-of-schedule component requiring schools to play at least one non-conference foe from the ACC, Big 12, Big 10 or Pac-12 annually starting in 2016.

Since Texas A&M and Missouri joined the league in 2012, the league has flirted with the idea of adding a ninth conference game, but Sunday’s overwhelming vote favored retaining the recent 6-1-1 format.

"This has been a thoughtful and deliberative process that has resulted in maintaining the current format and adds a provision that will bolster our collective annual non-conference schedule," said Commissioner Mike Slive in a statement. 

“Critical to maintaining this format is the non-conference opponent factor which gives us the added strength-of-schedule we were seeking while allowing continued scheduling flexibility for institutional preferences, and acknowledges that many of our institutions already play these opponents.

“The concept of strength-of-schedule is based on an entire 12-game schedule, a combination of both conference games together with non-conference games.  Given the strength of our conference schedule supplemented by at least one major non-conference game, our teams will boast of a strong resume’ of opponents each and every year.”

Sunday’s announcement changes nothing for Florida.

The Gators play Florida State every November, while they also remain “permanent” rivals with LSU. 

While UF athletic director Jeremy Foley has voiced his support for the permanent crossover opponents (i.e. LSU), Tigers AD Joe Alleva adamantly disapproved with the SEC’s decision Sunday night.

"Since 2000 LSU has played Florida and Georgia 19 times and Alabama has played them eight times. That is a competitive disadvantage. There are a lot of other examples,” Alleva told Jim Kleinpeter of the Times-Picayune.

"If I'm Ole Miss and I'm playing Vanderbilt, I'll vote to play Vanderbilt," Alleva said. "If I'm Mississippi State and I'm playing Kentucky, I'm going to vote to play Kentucky. People voted their own self interest instead of what is in the best interest of competitive balance.

"I understand Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia for the history, but that's only four schools. The rest were voting in their own self-interest. They could have kept those games and the rest of us rotated. That was brought up but voted down. I’m not pushing for the self-interest of LSU. I'm pushing for the equity.”

Florida and LSU have played every season since 1971.

More to come, but thoughts? Are you pleased the Gators are locked into a series with LSU?

Pull.

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

April 24, 2014

Thursday Tidbits: An afternoon buffet of Gators nuggets & links

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GAINESVILLE -- It’s snack time, so eat up.

Former Florida center Jon Harrison, an outspoken team leader for several seasons in Gainesville, recently made waves with comments regarding the Gators’ dumpster-fire 2013 season.

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Tuesday, Harrison, who started 39 games at Florida from 2009-13, created a firestorm when he said “the crumbling” Gators were derailed by infighting and poor off-the-field behavior -- leading to UF’s first losing season in 35 years.

The NFL Draft hopeful specifically mentioned a locker room fight, upsetting several former teammates on Twitter. 

Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 3.29.38 PMScreen Shot 2014-04-24 at 3.26.13 PM

A day later, Harrison clarified his comments in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, saying he was “misinterpreted.”

Harrison was adamant he was not “misquoted nor did he dispute the facts,” but rather his true feelings about coach Will Muschamp and the program were “read out of context.”

My take: First, read both links. Now, as I tweeted, a predictable outcome is predictable. Harrison’s dirt wasn’t particularly revelatory (specifically, the post Georgia Southern-fight was previously reported, but the pregame partying was new information) but you knew the messenger (i.e. Harrison) would be ripped for breaking the locker room omerta and deviating from the traditional platitudes and coaching speak.

What’s most humorous to me though, is this was written just 18 months ago following the end of Florida’s 11-2 campaign.   

MOVING ON

Redshirt freshman safety Marqui Hawkins is transferring, the school announced Thursday.

Hawkins, a three-star wideout from Columbus, Ga., was one of five receivers signed in Florida’s 2013 recruiting class, but the 6-foot-1, 213-pounder was redshirted last fall and moved to safety during spring practice.

“Marqui came to me and expressed an interest in getting a fresh start on the football field,” Muschamp said in a statement to school website Gatorzone.com.

“He was never in trouble off the field and was attentive in the classroom. We appreciate the way he carried himself and represented the program and wish him nothing but the best of luck in the future.”

MOVING ON PART DEUX

Longtime Florida men’s golf coach Buddy Alexander, a staple at UF for 27 years, announced his retirement — effective after the 2013-14 season — Tuesday.

Alexander, the 1986 U.S. Amateur Champion and second-longest tenured coach ever at Florida, led the Gators to a pair of national titles (1993, 2001) and 11 top-10 finishes at the NCAA Championships.

The men’s golf team has struggled of late, finishing 10th at the SEC Championships in 2012-13, and Alexander, 61, called coaching “a young man’s game” Tuesday.

“It’s simply time for me to turn the reins over to someone else and allow this great university, athletic department and golf program to be everything it should be,” Alexander penned in a statement.

Despite the program’s recent woes, Alexander leaves a legacy of excellence and a legitimate springboard for aspiring professional golfers (current PGA Tour pros include Billy Horschel, Matt Every, Chris DiMarco and others).

THIS & THAT

In a conference call with media members Wednesday, ESPN Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said former UF cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are likely Day 3 selections following poor workouts (at both the NFL Combine and Florida’s Pro Day) -- citing slow 40-yard dash times, specifically. Both enigmatic defensive backs were once considered first round talents, but after each clocked around 4.62 seconds 40-yard dash -- coupled with lackluster junior seasons and off-the-field concerns -- their stock(s) plummeted. The NFL Draft starts May 8-10.  … New York Giants safety Will Hill, an embattled defensive back at Florida from 2008-10, reportedly failed a drug test for the third straight year and faces a suspension of six games to a year depending on what tests show. In 2013, Hill started 10 games for the Giants, recording 77 tackles and two interceptions.

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April 22, 2014

Chomp, Chomp, Chomp: 'Take It All In'

GAINESVILLE -- The SEC Network released its "14 Schools, 14 Stories" ad campaign Tuesday, 40-second promo clips from ESPN capturing the essence of each league school.  

Florida's spot focuses on the genesis of the "Gator Chomp," featuring school historian Norm Carlson. 

Check it out, and take it all in. 

 

April 21, 2014

Crowned: Gators earn repeat title (and win a bunch of other games too)

Espnw_a_oklahoma-florida_mb_600x400(Courtesy AP Photo | Butch Dill)

GAINESVILLE -- Normally, I don’t scribe about Florida’s secondary sports, but I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the hardware (and wins) the Gators collected over a profitable weekend. 

Somewhere, Jeremy Foley is stoked. 

To wit:

* Florida’s women’s gymnastics team clinched back-to-back national titles Saturday night, tying Oklahoma for the first-ever co-champs in the NCAA Super Six. The Gators, who’s team score of 198.175 was the highest score in the history of the NCAA Championships, rallied with a dominating floor rotation and capped a remarkable comeback to share the stage with the Sooners.  

* No. 4 UF’s women’s lacrosse team topped No. 5 Northwestern 13-12 on the road, winning its fourth straight American Lacrosse Conference title.  

* The fifth-ranked Gators women’s softball team swept No. 21 Texas A&M in Gainesville, as coach Tim Walton earned his 600th career victory with Sunday’s 8-0 shutout. 

* Kevin O’Sullivan’s pesky baseball team, ranked No. 18 nationally, swept Georgia at home with a 10-3 win on Easter. Following a rainout Friday evening, the Gators played a double-header Saturday and won three games in roughly 24 hours. 

And while we’re here, some other news and notes over the past week...

PIPELINE CONTINUES

Rivals100 cornerback Marcus Lewis verbally committed to the Gators last Thursday, continuing Florida’s tradition of landing top-flight defensive backs under head coach Will Muschamp. 

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The 2015 four-star corner, originally out of Washington D.C.’s Gonzaga High, is planning on transferring to IMG Academy in Bradenton this summer -- according to multiple recruiting outlets. 

Lewis is the sixth prospect verbally pledged to Florida’s 2015 recruiting class. 

THIS & THAT

On Friday, former Florida point guard Nick Calathes, a backup guard with the Memphis Grizzlies, was suspended 20 games for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy. 

According to a release, Calathes tested positive for Tamoxifen, however, lab results showed no traces of testosterone or performance-enhancing drugs. Calathes is set to appeal/fight the suspension. …  According to 247Sports, Florida tops all colleges with the most former players (10) in the 2014 NBA playoffs.

*****UPDATE*****

According to multiple reports, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah will be named the 2014 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, the most prestigious individual honor ever earned in the NBA by a former Gator. Noah anchored one of the league's top defensive teams, averaging 11.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals. 

Finally, Editor’s note: I understand the Herald blogs haven’t worked properly lately and the higher-ups are aware of the issue. Thanks. Now you all may proceed and spit about how much you don't care about Florida's secondary sports.

Go. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

April 17, 2014

Easley impresses, proves to NFL he's healthy

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GAINESVILLE -- Former Gators defensive tackle Dominique Easley wowed NFL scouts Thursday during a private pro day, dismissing concerns over his health following multiple knee surgeries during his four-year career in Gainesville.

Easley -- who tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee in a practice late last September -- worked out yards from the same place he sustained the non-contact knee injury in The Swamp, impressing dozens of league representatives with his quickness, power, agility, fluidity and competitive fire.

“I felt great,” said Easley, all-smiles following his workout.

“That’s just me. I like to work past expectations. I don’t like being down. That’s just who I am as a person. [I showed scouts] that I can move. That I still got the quickness. That I still got the get-off and I still got my tenacity.”

Representatives from the Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns were among those in attendance, while Chicago Bears defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni led the workout alongside Florida head coach Will Muschamp.

“Outstanding five months out of surgery,” Muschamp said of Easley’s half-hour session.

“I was shocked how quick he was, his lateral change of direction, all the stuff he’s able to do. It doesn’t shock me in terms of his work ethic and what he’s willing to do to get himself ready.”

Easley, who rehabbed three times a day, everyday with trainer Tony Villani in Boca Raton, pegged his current knee strength at “about 80 percent” but expects to be 100 percent by July mini-camps.

The former All-SEC standout also noted he trained with ex-Gators and current Miami Dolphins center Mike Pouncey in South Florida.

Charged with a relentless motor and explosive first-step, the undersized tackle (6-2, 285 pounds) was tabbed as the nation’s ninth-best overall prospect just six months ago, according to ESPN draft guru Todd McShay.

But following a second ACL tear in three years, the dominant interior lineman saw his stock plummet.

After a long road to recovery, Easley isn’t concerned with draft projections and is simply ready to prove he’s worth the risk whenever he’s selected.

“I don’t really pay any attention to [the projections],” Easley said. “Everybody know how I play. Everybody seen my passion for the game, my love for it. That stuff don’t matter to me.”

Meanwhile, his former college coach believes teams would be foolish to pass on such a talent.

"You want him in your locker room,” Muschamp said, emphatically.

“He's a really good player, but I think his competitive edge is a huge talent. It's probably his No. 1 talent. A bunch of the coaches and scouts came to me afterward and said, 'We understand what you're talking about.' We got out there and we put him through a tough workout. … We made it difficult on purpose. It was good for them to see that because when it gets tough, that's when he's at his best."

Easley acknowledged the mental hurdle of a second knee injury was rough, but motivated by his 18-month-old son, Dominique Easley Jr., he decided quickly he didn’t have time to feel sorry for himself.

“I don't expect sympathy from anybody,” Easley said. “Life isn't about sympathy. You got to get through what you got to get through. Ain't no time to be crying about something. You've got mouths to feed. That's how I look at life. I've got a mouth to feed. If I cry, he's going to cry for not having food. I can't let that happen."

Easley, who won’t participate in any private workouts, starts seven straight days of team visits Sunday before May’s (8-10) NFL Draft. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

April 14, 2014

10 observations, lessons learned as Gators head into offseason

GAINESVILLE -- Spring practice is finito.

Florida couldn’t win its own spring game, but a comical finish didn’t spoil an otherwise productive 15-practice camp.

Here’s 10 rapid reactions, observations, lessons learned -- Twitter style (140 characters or less, or something close) -- as the Gators head into an important offseason.

1. The offense MAY no longer be the laughing stock of college football. Comfort + confidence + coaching = PROGRESS. 

2. Florida has a fleet of talented, shifty and hungry tailbacks, an intriguing group of promising wideouts and a solid starting offensive line, BUT…

3. BIG DUMB WILL MUSCHAMP FOOTBALL could reemerge FAST if just a single injury occurs along the offense line. Quality depth is a major concern heading into the fall. 

4. Jeff Driskel appears healthy and happy, but Kurt Roper's tailor-made scheme doesn't suddenly erase the quarterback's deficiencies -- namely telegraphed throws, inconsistent accuracy and indecisiveness.

5. Dante Fowler Jr., Vernon Hargreaves III and Jon Bullard are studs, while Keanu Neal, Jarrad Davis and Marcell Harris proved potential standouts-in-waiting.      

6. Florida’s youth movement along the defensive line and in the secondary will experience plenty of growing pains, especially…

7. Up front. Bullard better love DT, while Leon Orr and Darious Cummings best be prepared to play plenty of snaps because Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley and others appear no where near ready to play.

8. The Gators are still searching for a consistent -- Alex McCalister and/or Bryan Cox Jr., perhaps? -- pass rushing option opposite of Fowler Jr. to emerge. 

9. Specialists remain suspect. Kicker Austin Hardin rebounded from a rough fall (4-4 FG), but punter Kyle Christy was still shaky while long-snapping was an issue as well.

10. The Gators will be a better team in 2014, but pronouncing them East Champs after a solid spring is silly (and stupid and short-sided and senseless and shall I continue?)

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

April 12, 2014

VIDEO: Muschamp, Driskel talk Orange & Blue Debut

GAINESVILLE -- Florida head coach Will Muschamp and quarterback Jeff Driskel talk the 2014 Orange & Blue Debut. 

Saturday's spring scrimmage hilariously ended in a tie (23-23), but UF's revamped offense (amazingly) wasn't a complete joke.

Driskel talked the offense's tempo, efficiency, the instillation process and adjustment period, while Muschamp dished out kudos to coordinator Kurt Roper and Florida's entire offensive staff. 

 

 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

April 11, 2014

Fantasy Draft: Recapping Florida's selection show

Header_5(Courtesy Gatorzone.com)

GAINESVILLE -- Fun and fancy are two words rarely (if ever) associated with Will Muschamp, but Florida’s coach -- or PR department -- is dabbling with some different ideas to up the team’s entertainment value during a critical 2014.

On Thursday, Florida held a live stream “Orange & Blue Debut Selection Show,” as “Gator Great” captains -- Josh Evans and Shane Matthews for the Orange Team, and Jelani Jenkins and Chris Doering for the Blue team -- selected a dozen players each to build preliminary rosters for Saturday’s spring game (1:30 p.m., PPV).

The “fantasy draft” was essentially an innovative way for Florida to unveil its depth chart (thereby avoiding a repeat of Muschamp’s LSU disaster) -- with the Orange team serving as the No. 1 defense and the Blue team as the No. 1 offense.

The selection results are below, but first a couple interesting notes...

The first team offense was predictable -- although Brown at guard seems more like an experiment than a guarantee at this point -- but defensively Maye, Neal and Cox Jr. were all notable selections. 

Despite missing much of the spring with a bum hamstring, Neal, an explosive and cerebral sophomore, appears to be a starter at safety. Meanwhile, Maye looks to be in position to start as Florida’s (all-important) nickel cornerback and Cox Jr. has (seemingly) earned an initial nod at defensive end (opposite of Fowler Jr. at BUCK).

All three are worth keeping an eye on Saturday. 

ROUND

ORANGE TEAM

BLUE TEAM

1

Vernon Hargreaves III, CB

Jeff Driskel, QB

2

Dante Fowler Jr., BUCK

Quinton Dunbar, WR

3

Antonio Morrison, LB

Michael Taylor, LB

4

Valdez Showers, WR

Kelvin Taylor, RB

5

Jonathan Bullard, DL

Chaz Green, RT

6

Mack Brown, RB

Jalen Tabor, CB

7

Keanu Neal, S

D.J. Humphries, LT

8

Latroy Pittman, WR

Demarcus Robinson, WR

9

Marcus Maye, S

Duke Dawson, CB

10

Jarrad Davis, LB

Trenton Brown, OL

11

Hunter Joyer, FB

Max Garcia, C

12

Bryan Cox Jr., DE

Alex McCalister, DE

 

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April 10, 2014

VIDEO: "It's not his first rodeo"

GAINESVILLE -- Kurt Roper met with the media for the final time before fall camp, and Florida's offensive coordinator dished on a number of topics including his Orange & Blue Debut expectations, the offense's installation progress and quarterback Jeff Driskel's development and comfort within Roper's up-tempo scheme. 

 

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April 09, 2014

Grounded: 'Sky' returns to Gators

GAINESVILLE — Former McDonald’s All-American Chris 'Sky' Walker is returning to Florida for “one more year.”

The five-star freshman announced his decision Wednesday via Twitter, with the school quickly confirming the news. 

  Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 9.00.47 PMWalker missed the first three months of Florida’s historic 2013-14 season — first delayed by academic issues then serving an NCAA-mandated 12-game suspension for accepting impermissible benefits. 

In 18 games, the freshman was a little-used role player during UF’s Final Four run, but with a full offseason of strength and conditioning he’s expected to be a breakout contributor next season. 

Walker flashed his elite athleticism for small stretches for the Gators (see: Three minutes of brillance against UCLA in the Sweet 16), but the freshman mostly struggled understanding the nuances of coach Billy Donovan’s system — offensively and defensively. 

The 6-foot-10 power forward averaged just 1.9 points and 1.3 rebounds in 4.8 minutes per game, but according to numerous mock drafts he projected as a first-rounder in the upcoming NBA Draft based largely on his limitless potential. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

Driskel earns praise

GAINESVILLE — Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel continues to shine during spring practice, according to coach Will Muschamp. 

Driskel, a redshirt junior, is quickly mastering Kurt Roper’s no-huddle system, flashing the offense’s (professed) explosive potential in last weekend’s scrimmage. 

“He’s throwing the ball extremely well,” said Muschamp, who delayed the start date of Florida’s spring camp so that Driskel’s broken leg would be fully-healed. 

“I think he had three dropped on Saturday on a bubble, slant and dig. The [one] interception should’ve been caught. I think he’s throwing the ball very accurately.”

Driskel, much-maligned for two years at UF, played in just three games in 2013 before sustaining a gruesome leg-fracture in the first quarter against Tennessee.  

Florida’s offense was the laugh-stocking of college football last season, but Muschamp (reluctantly at first) embraced a philosophical shift and hired Roper and a system suited to Driskel's skill-set. 

So far, so good. 

While Roper's offensive instillation is not complete, Driskel has steadily improved this spring, Muschamp said.

Florida's coach also commented on the offense's ability to avoiding bad plays under Roper's easy audible system -- something strikingly missing in 2013.  

“We create a lot of run-pass issues, run-pass conflicts I would say for a defense with what we’re doing in the run game and off the passing game off,” Muschamp explained. 

“If we get a bad run box, we’re able to get out of it with a quick game, whether it’s a slant or a bubble or a quicks outside. Jeff has done a really good job because that takes quick hands to get the ball from a play action situation up and out. I think he’s doing extremely well.”

NO SEPARATION 

Muschamp remains mum on naming a backup quarterback, opting to blanket redshirt-sophomore Skyler Morhinweg and early enrollee Will Grier with universal (albeit generic) praise. 

“No [separation],” Muschamp said. “Both guys have done some nice things. Will made a really nice adjustment off a corner pressure and hotted the ball to Andre Debose in the red zone. It was a really nice throw. Skyler does some nice things. Both of those guys will continue to get reps with that group.”   

ORANGE & BLUE DETAILS

Florida’s annual spring scrimmage will kickoff Saturday at 1:30 p.m. from The Swamp, and the spring game will be televised on tape delay on Sun Sports (statewide) starting at 5:00 p.m.

The Orange & Blue Debut will be available live for GatorVision subscribers or for purchase ($3.99) on pay-per-view. 

INJURY UPDATE

Former walk-on tailback Mark Herndon, a spring standout to date, sustained a high-ankle sprain during Saturday’s scrimmmage and will miss the remainder of camp. 

According to Muschamp, the injury isn’t serious and will not require surgery. 

Sophomore linebacker Daniel McMillian missed the scrimmage with an ankle injury, while safety Marcus Maye pulled a hamstring during the scrimmage -- both players are questionable for Saturday’s Orange & Blue Debut. 

Meanwhile, offensive lineman Roderick Johnson (concussion) remains sidelined and is unlikely to play Saturday.   

QUOTABLE 

“In a perfect world you like to have four guys inside and four guys outside. If you're able to play with between eight and 10 players in this league, which normally in my experience is what it's going to take. Now, you can survive with three inside and three outside, but you're living a dangerous life with injuries. … I think all of those guys have the ability to be in that group. I really do. Now will they take that next step from a maturity standpoint and understand to battle through pain and mental and physical toughness to have it for the position? Because I think they have the ability. I think that's there. It's just a matter of how quickly it's going to come for them at a championship level."

-- Muschamp, on Florida’s youth along the defensive line and finding a consistent rotation. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton 

April 08, 2014

Steady progress

GAINESVILLE — Spring football is always full of eternal optimism, but Florida coach Will Muschamp is confident he isn’t spewing hot air. 

Muschamp, oozing positivity Tuesday, recapped UF’s latest scrimmage and declared Florida fans will be delighted with what they see during Saturday’s Orange & Blue Debut (1:30 p.m., PPV). 

“I think when they see our football team and offensively where we are, I think they’ll see a formidable unit on defense playing well,” Muschamp said. “They’re going to see a good-looking team. We’re going to have a good team next year. We just need to continue to progress. … Our guys have a lot of confidence in what we're doing [offensively].  A lot of belief in what we're doing. I think we lost that late in the year and that's changed automatically without having to do anything.”

Other than multiple staff changes.

But according to Muschamp, Florida’s new offensive staff has excited a hungry group —  especially quarterback Jeff Driskel — eager to wash away the ills of a year ago. 

The instillation of Kurt Roper’s up-tempo, spread offense has gone smoother than Muschamp anticipated, with the offense’s potential (purportedly) showcasing well in the closed scrimmages. 

"Overall, pretty pleased with the Saturday [scrimmage],” Muschamp said. 

“The effort, guys got after it and competed. I think offensively we're further ahead than where I thought we would be at this point as far as from an execution standpoint. There's still some things that we've got to get better and clean up, but I'm pleased with where we are.”

During the Muschamp’s scrimmage summation, he noted standout efforts from Driskel, junior defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., sophomore safety Keanu Neal, the first-team offensive line and others. 

In less than one week, Gators fans will have their own chance to gauge the offense's improvements in a game-like atmosphere, but in the meantime here's a bevy of notes from the closed scrimmage.

********** GOOD **********

* The offense produced 10 explosive plays — five running, five passing.

* Tailbacks averaged more than five yards per rushing attempt.

* Florida’s inexperienced receiving corps continues to improve, highlighted by Ahmad Fulwood’s 52-yard touchdown catch. Demarcus Robinson also collected a touchdown reception during the scrimmage. 

* Other positives included third-down efficiency and the quarterback run game.

* UF’s specialists — disastrous last season — had a productive day, as Austin Hardin (7-of-9) and Frankie Velez (7-of-8) were “much more accurate kicking the football.” Muschamp also noted punter Kyle Christy’s spring revelation. 

“He's really punted well. I think he's had a good spring. I really do, I think he's punted well. His confidence is up and he's done some nice things."

********** BAD **********

* The offense had four procedure penalties. 

“Four too many,” Muschamp said. “We have to continue to get that out of our game.” 

* Driskel threw one interception — “a nice play” by early enrollee Jalen Tabor. But according to Muschamp, the ball “should’ve been caught or knocked down by the receiver." 

* Other noted issues: two fumbles (none lost), three drops, offensive line fatigue. 

********** UGLY ********** 

* Muschamp said the defense had 22 missed tackles — the majority coming in the secondary — and 18 “eye control” errors in the defensive backfield. 

“We don’t have a starting nickel right now,” he said, in a rare moment of frustration Tuesday. Brian [Poole] and Duke [Dawson] have been in there. We may look at Marcus Maye in there. We need to get better at that position. It’s a position that’s been very productive for us over the years, but we need to get better at that position.”

* Continued shotgun snap issues. 

“Disappointed [with the poor snaps]. … If we continue to have those, we need to look in another direction.”

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

April 05, 2014

VIDEO: Young talks Final Four defeat

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Top-seeded Florida's locker room, full of heartbreak, tears and soundless seconds, felt a lot like a funeral Saturday night. 

The Gators' special season -- a 30-game winning streak, historic undefeated record in conference play, a fourth straight Regional Semifinal's -- ended with a disappointing dud, a 63-53 loss to seventh-seeded Connecticut in the Final Four. 

Senior center Patric Young, who tallied a season-high 19 points in the final game of his career, managed to collect some thoughts on the loss, his career and more. 

 

NCAA Final Four: Live from AT&T Stadium

2013-final-four-dallas

ARLINGTON, Texas — Florida's 'Core Four' starts its Texas revenge tour in roughly one hour.

The top-seeded Gators and seventh-seeded Connecticut Huskies tipoff at 6:09 p.m. (EST) on TBS at Jerry World AT&T Stadium. 

Florida has won all four tournament games by double-digits — the only team to do so — and enter the matchup as prohibabtive favorites (BPI 80 percent, FiveThirtyEight 70 percent, Vegas -6.5), but can Shabazz Napier complete the Kemba Walker metamophsis and engineer an upset?

We'll see. 

ICYMI: A sampling of the Miami Herald's extensive pregame coverage:

* Adam Beasley's tremendous feature on Billy Donovan. 

* The heavyweight match-up between Napier and UF guard Scottie Wilbekin.

* Will Kasey Hill be the X-factor?

* Overcoming the distractions at the Final Four.

* An early preview. 

Here's a six-pack of keys to watch during the Final Four showdown. 

CONTROLLING THE PAINT

The Gators physically dominated the Huskies on Dec. 2, as UF outscored Connecticut 32-14 in the paint, had a plus-eight margin on the glass and forced both Huskies centers (Phillip Nolan, Tyler Olander) to foul out. 

Patric Young was unguardable, tallying 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting. 

Also: Florida has been a steady rebounding team (42nd defense, 41st offense) all season, while UConn struggles to control the boards with a guard-heavy lineup. Napier is UConn’s leading rebounder (5.9 rpg), as Nolan — its starting big-man — grabs just 2.9 boards per contest. 

FREE THROWS

[See: UCLA note, lather, rinse, repeat]. The Gators, porous from the charity stripe most of the season (66.3 percent), have shot 73.9 percent in four NCAA Tournament games, but UConn is better… much better. Napier has shot 93 percent from the line in the Big Dance, 87 percent on the season. UConn averages 21 free throws a game. 

BEHIND THE ARC 

The Gators shot a woeful 6-for-25 from downtown in two games last year at the cavernous AT&T Stadium, but players swear depth perception won’t be a factor tonight. In Michigan’s Elite Eight drubbing, Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II never attempted a trey.   

BENCH 

Kasey Hill didn’t play (ankle). Chris Walker wasn’t on campus yet (ineligible). Dorian Finney-Smith had one of his worst games of the season (4 fouls, 3 points). Florida’s depth is one of the team’s major strengths, as UF reserves have outscored their counterparts 62 percent of the time this season. In the first meeting, UConn had a plus-nine advantage (12-3). Look for that to flip tonight. 

TURNOVERS

Florida had its worst assist-to-turnover ratio of the season against UConn (8:16), as Finney-Smith (6), Wilbekin (3) and Casey Prather (5) struggled to take care of the ball. The 16 turnovers were one shy of Florida’s season-high, and the Gators haven’t coughed the rock up as many as 14 times in six weeks. 

OVER/UNDER 25.5

Napier sliced the Gators for 26 points in the first matchup, highlighted by his buzzer-beating fadeaway. Napier has scored 25 (or more) points 10 times this season — with UConn winning eight of those games. If the Gators hold the All-American under 25 points they should roll to the finals, otherwise things could get tricky.

Enjoy the game, everybody. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

April 03, 2014

Muschamp Musings: Demarcus Robinson's maturation, tailback plans & more

GAINESVILLE -- Florida is a couple days removed from the midway point of spring practice.

The Gators have six practices remaining, as camp concludes April 12 with the annual Orange & Blue Debut (1:30 p.m.).

Coach Will Muschamp has been steadily impressed with Florida's offensive progress under new coordinator Kurt Roper, but earlier this week the Gators' coach dished on some specifics, including the maturation of sophomore wideout Demarcus Robinson, Florida's tailback depth chart, the offensive line and more.

On DeMarcus Robinson...

"I think he has done some fantastic things in the passing game. He’s an explosive receiver. He’s a tough match one-on-one because of his size, his athleticism. He’s got really good ball skills down the field. I think again, sometimes maturing a little bit. We mature different times. I think we’ve seen some strides there. I’ve been pleased to this point. There’s no question from a matchup standpoint, he’s a guy that can do some things. A lot of it goes into assignments. Are you blocking the right guy? Are you running the right route? Are we sight adjusting this? You’ve got to be able to see when they bring two off the edge. Got to be able to sight adjust with the quarterback splattered. There are things like that we’ve got to continue to iron out. That’s part of the maturing process on and off the field.”

On a possible tailback-by-committee approach…

"Kelvin has run the ball well, Mack had a nice run yesterday. Very pleased with where we are with the position overall. But whoever the best players are and we'll move forward with that. I have very good confidence with the guy's we've got. And of course Matt [Jones] is sitting out and [injured early enrollee] Brandon Powell. Powell is a guy that in our offseason program he's got a different gear, quick change of direction and can do a lot of things. Disappointed he's not able to practice, but he's a guy that gives us a little juice."

On Taylor's improvement this spring…

"He's more confident in what he's doing. Much better protection than he was a year ago where he needed to take some big steps. He's got natural running instincts when running the football. This offense is a little different for these guys in how they're getting the ball. We still run the counter. We still run the power. We still run the inside run. We still run the stretch, but they're angles to the line of scrimmage are a little different, and I think they've all adjusted very well."

On how Florida's offensive line is taking to new coach Mike Summers…

"It's going well. I think again you know I've been pleased with our progress. I think D.J. [Humphries] and Chaz [Green] and Max [Garcia] have all played really good football for us. Trip's done a nice job playing at the guard position, Tyler's [Moore] handling the elbow situation--there was a time that we we didn't even know if he was going to be able to through spring, and he hasn't missed a snap. So, pleased with his progress, feels more comfortable playing inside. I think those guys have adjusted and adapted well to it."

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April 01, 2014

Traditional Orange & Blue Debut set

GAINESVILLE -- A year removed from holding a glorified practice in The Swamp, the Gators will play a traditional spring game April 12.

Florida’s customary Orange & Blue Debut was scrapped last spring due to minimal depth along the offensive line, but on Monday coach Will Muschamp announced the normal format is back on.

“We'll do like the No. 1 offense vs. the No. 1 defense, and then they score for one team,” Muschamp explained. “And then the No. 2 offense vs. the No. 2 defense scores for the other team. And then incorporate some kicking game things within the game. Absolutely. Try to get as much game day as you can. Wanted to have that last year. I just didn't feel like it was fair with the offensive line situation that we had."

The Gators’ first- and-second-team units will alternate possessions, as Florida will not conduct a faux-draft for the game.

Muschamp referenced (a comical) story of a poor experience with a spring draft at LSU.

“We had Marcus Spears matched up on a guy like me playing tackle. And then Jimbo [Fisher] and Nick [Saban] have to answer the entire offseason why our passing game wasn't very good,” he said. 

“Well, you know, “Will” couldn't block Marcus very good. Marcus had like 14 sacks. So the draft pick stuff is great, but I don't know that you want that matchup. I want good on good. I want to see the best players going against the best players and being able to as a staff match up guys that we know we need to find out things about.”

INJURY REPORT

Muschamp said sophomore safety Keanu Neal is “close to 90 percent” after sustaining a pair of offseason hamstring injuries.

Neal, who is competing for a starting job in the secondary, is expected to return to practice Wednesday.

“He wanted to go [Monday],” Muschamp said.  “We held him to just make sure this thing’s completely healed before we get you back and strain on that right now. He needs to be a part of the spring game. He needs to get in front of the crowd and play. He needs to be in practices 10, 11, 12 and 13. I didn’t want to lose him another day.”

Meanwhile, sophomore wide receiver Chris Thompson (undisclosed) was fully-cleared for practice after working non-contact Monday, while redshirt freshman offensive lineman Roderick Johnson remains out with a concussion.

“He still has not been cleared,” Muschamp said. “We’re hoping Wednesday, I don’t know. That’s a doctor’s call.”

THIS & THAT 

Muschamp was asked about the status of incoming freshman defensive back J.C. Jackson (Immokalee) -- who reportedly injured his shoulder and might require surgery. “Not sure right now,” Muschamp said. “He had a little accident playing tackle football or something. We’re looking into that.” … Muschamp heaped praise on Florida’s overall offensive progress, but said the unit’s tempo must “pick up.” … Florida’s backup quarterback job remains in flux, as Muschamp refused to applaud true freshman Will Grier or redshirt sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg. “Both of them need to pick it up.” … Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Cameron Dillard was named UF’s backup center.

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March 31, 2014

Wilbekin named AP All-American

GAINESVILLE -- Scottie Wilbekin's trophy case is running out of space. 

Top-seeded Florida's point guard -- the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player and South Regional Most Outstanding Player --  was named a third-team All-American by the Associated Press on Monday, the most prestigious of any All-American teams

Wilbekin became Florida's first player to earn AP All-American honors since Joakim Noah and Al Horford in 2006-07. 

Wilbekin averages 13.4 points and 3.7 assists as UF's floor general, but the 6-foot-2 senior has upped his performance on the biggest stage -- averaging 16.8 points in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. 

Seniors Casey Prather and Patric Young received honorable mention acclaim, while Prather -- the team's leading scorer at 13.8 points per gam -- also landed on the 10-player Wooden All-American team

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March 30, 2014

VIDEO: Gators celebrate trip to Final Four

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Top-seeded Florida punched its first ticket back to the Final Four since 2007, celebrating its 62-52 win over 11th-seeded Dayton in the Elite Eight in style Saturday night at the FedEx Forum. 

 

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March 29, 2014

NCAA Notebook: Any help, please?

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Archie Miller, Dayton's third-year head coach, joked his older brother, Sean -- Arizona’s head coach -- is a tad busy to solicit information on how to trump Florida.

The Wildcats and Gators played a home-and-home series in 2011-12 and 2012-13, but two brothers aren’t even speaking during the NCAA Tournament despite becoming the first siblings to lead their respective teams to the Regional Semifinals.

“He’s not helping me. He’s trying to do his thing,” said Archie, as Sean’s Wildcats advanced to the West Regional Semifinals after topping San Diego State on Thursday night in Anaheim, Calf. 

“But Florida, you see them a lot on TV. You understand what they’re about. You understand their pedigree. They’re the No. 1 overall seed for a reason. They’ve won 29 games in a row. I don’t know who can help me, to be honest with you.”

INSIDE EDGE?

Flyers assistant Tom Ostrom spent seven seasons (1998-2003) on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida and another eight seasons (2004-2011) with Gators assistant John Pelphrey at South Alabama and Arkansas, but his familiarity with Florida’s coaches won’t be crucial advantage, according to Miller.

“Tom is a terrific coach,” Miller said.

“I think Tom’s experience with Florida is a long time ago. Big thing nowadays it’s not so much what [Florida] does but their personnel.”

Donovan concurred, adding, “It’s been awhile since Tom worked for me but he did a great for me and a great job for John.”

Ostrom was put in charge of Dayton’s gameplan for the Gators, as the assistant sat courtside Thursday and scouted Florida's win over UCLA. 

QUOTABLE

"It's been an up-and-down journey, but it's all been worth it. To see the point that I'm at now with my teammates. It the journey has been a struggle at times, but it's also had a lot of highs. It's been a great season. Fun. Just so much fun I want it to keep going as long as it can because this honestly been my most enjoyable year at Florida."

-- Senior poing guard Scottie Wilbekin, reflecting on his personal journey over the past 12 months. 

THIS & THAT

The Gators tied a season-high with 22 assists against UCLA, including 10 dimes by freshman point guard Kasey Hill. According to ESPN Stats Inc., Hill became just the fourth freshman ever to record 10 (or more) assists in a Sweet 16 game, joining elite company in Magic Johnson (1978), Jason Kidd (1993) and Keith Gatlin (1984). ... Dayton goes 12-deep with line change substitutions, but Florida's reserves -- led by Hill and Dorian Finney-Smith -- have outscored their counterparts 62 percent of the time this season, including 11 of the last 14 games. ... Amanda Butler’s 11th-seeded Lady Gators upset sixth-seeded Dayton (83-69) in the first round of this year’s women’s NCAA Tournament. It marks the first time in school history Florida’s men’s and women’s teams have played the same school in the tournament in the same season. 

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ViDEO: Young talks Elite Eight

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Top-seeded Gators center Patric Young dished on 11th-seeded Dayton's depth, Florida coach Billy Donovan's motivational analogies, Chris Walker's fear of flying, embracing his role as team big brother and the David versus Goliath matchup. 

The Gators and Flyers tip-off at 6:09 p.m. (TBS) at the FedEx Forum with a Final Four berth at stake. 

 

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March 27, 2014

UF-UCLA: 3 under-the-radar keys to watch

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The top-seeded Gators (34-2) and fourth-seeded Bruins (28-8) tip-off tonight (9:45 p.m., CBS) in the Sweet 16, and while everyone -- yours truly included -- has focused on contrasting styles, tempo and dueling point guards, here’s three under-the-radar keys to watch tonight.   

1. Coaching disparity

Another popular pregame narrative has been the parallels between Florida coach Billy Donovan and UCLA coach Steve Alford. They both were savvy point guards who led their respective teams to the 1987 Final Four. They both have sons who play for them. They both went to the Sweet 16 (as coaches) for the first time in 1999.

To me though, the similarities end there.

While Alford was the better player, Donovan has proven to be the superior coach -- by multiple Pauley Pavillions.

Donovan has 33 NCAA Tournament victories -- 26 more wins than Alford (7).

Alford, who advanced past the opening weekend for the first time in 14 years, is a charismatic coach known mostly for doing more with less and less with more.

College hoops is full over over-zealous coaching but if matters Thursday night, the nation’s best team clearly has the better sideline pedigree.

2. Free Throw Shooting

It’s simple really: During the 2013-14 season, Florida (usually) stunk at the charity stripe, while UCLA (traditionally) succeeded.

The Gators made 20-of-27 free throws in the second- and-third round of the NCAA Tournament, but they still rank No. 280 nationally in overall percentage (66.3).

UCLA ranks No. 21 (74.9 percent) in the country at the charity stripe, as four of five starters shoot at least 77 percent.

Jordan Adams, UCLA’s prolific scoring swingman, shoots nearly 84 percent at the line and has made (156) and attempted (186) more free throws than any player on Florida’s roster.

If the game is close late, the Bruins definitely hold the edge at the line.

3. Who slows down Patric Young?

Yes, UCLA poses challenging matchups playing upside down -- its guards post up and its bigs shoot -- but what about the showdown on the other end of the floor?

The Wear twins are both 6-10, but power -- especially dogged, desperate strength -- can trump length. Patric Young, averaging 8.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in the tournament, is determined for another crack at the Elite Eight and a final chance to make the Final Four.

Can the Wear twins (along with Tony Parker) match his interior-presence, effort and intensity?

We’ll see.

***** BONUS Q *****

Both teams rely on freshmen guards off the bench (UCLA: Zach LaVine, Bryce Alford; UF: Kasey Hill) -- who shines or shudders on the big stage?

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Q&A: Gators assistant talks Florida's press, UCLA's matchup challenges

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- UCLA poses plenty of matchup challenges for the nation's top team, so who better to breakdown the intriguing showdown then Florida scouting wiz/assistant coach Matt McCall. 

The top-seeded Gators (34-2) and fourth-seeded Bruins (28-8) tip-off tonight (9:45 p.m., CBS) in the Sweet 16 at the FedEx Forum.

Florida’s unrelenting full-court pressure forces plenty of turnovers, but what’s the key in limiting scoring opportunities (ex: Pittsburgh tallied just 22 first-half points last weekend) when teams do break the press?

 “The biggest thing is positioning, being in the right spots. Our defense is built to handle anything that’s coming at us. When our guys are in the right spots and understand their roles no matter what action or play it all comes down to positioning. We played with a tremendous amount of passion [against the Panthers]. We understood those guys could cause us all sorts of problems, and it’s going to be no different against UCLA. This is a little bit unique from what we’ve faced all year from the standpoint of our guards are going to have to guard a lot on the inside and our frontcourt players are going to have to guard a lot on the outside which is different. We’ve had some time to prepare, but it’s a little unique.”

Is UCLA -- with its offensive firepower -- the first team this season Florida has faced that can consistently score off breaking the press? 

“Very rarely do those guys get late into the clock. I can’t say they’re taking bad shots. Jordan Adams has got terrific basketball IQ and he really knows how to use screens. He’s as good as any player we’ve played against this year at finding spots to score and using screens. And then when you got a guy [Kyle Anderson] that’s 6-9 out there controlling everything and finding him, that really helps too. They’re unselfsish. It’s impressive. They really don’t take bad shots. … Jordan Adams, if you take the first option away. He understands how to get to the next one and the next one. Then add Norman Powell who’s flying up the floor and gets a lot of his baskets in transition. It all causes issues.”

While Anderson generates a lot of headlines with his freakish-versatility, Adams is a potent scoring threat. Is there any SEC-comp for him?

“It’s hard because he posts more than any guard we’ve played against. I’d put him up there -- if not better -- than [Missouri guard] Jabari Brown and [Tennesse guard] Jordan McCrae. Those guys don’t post as much as this guy. They’re terrific but Adams’ basketball IQ takes him to a different level. He’s an explosive player.”

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Prather's happy homecoming, Anderson's recruitment, valuing possessions & more

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- As a standout at North Side High in Jackson, Tenn., Florida’s senior slasher Casey Prather grew up just 90 miles from FedEx Forum.

The Gators’ leading scorer (14.1 ppg) played high school and AAU games at the arena and is thrilled to return to his backyard.

“It’s great just having my family be able to support me,” Prather said, on this homecoming.  “I know they wanted to come to a lot more games but I’ve been kind of far away, so me playing close to home is just great for them.  “It’s a great environment. I’m excited. It should be a lot of fun.”

The 2013-14 season has been special for Prather, as his well-documented struggles with injuries and identity issues nearly derailed his Florida career.

But after some soul-searching last offseason, the 6-foot-6 swingman has matured into Florida’s most potent threat around the rim.

Prather led the SEC in field goal percentage (60.7) and was an all-conference first teamer, as his patience and perseverance paid off.

“I had to stay locked it to who I am as a player,” he explained. “Just playing to my strengths. … The [coaching staff] helped me see the big picture. I took a step back and realized what I can bring to the team and things I could do effectively to help us win.” 

NO REGRETS

Florida nearly poached UCLA’s do-everything-all-star two years ago, as Anderson almost committed to the Gators during the 2012 recruiting cycle.

The Jersey City St. Anthony’s standout -- the same hoops academy former Gators guard Mike Rosario attended -- ultimately chose the Bruins due to former UCLA coach Ben Howland’s propensity for developing combo-guards.

However, Rivals’ third-overall player said it was a close decision.

“I wouldn’t have had a problem going to both schools,” the former McDonald’s All-American said.

“I just happened to like UCLA more. The player development that I saw when being recruited by Donovan played a big role in how much I liked Florida at the time. But I decided to come to UCLA, and I’m happy with my decision.” 

VALUE THE BALL

While the Bruins are considered solely an offensive juggernaut, they rank No. 4 in the country in steals, averaging 9.3 swipes per game thanks to their impressive length, size and quick hands.

Florida is well aware of UCLA’s prowess of jumping passing lanes and converting turnovers into fast points, with senior center Patric Young calling the Bruins “the fastest shooting team [from defense to offense] in the country.”

Sophomore guard Michael Frazier II added, “taking care of the ball is key because they score a lot of their points in transition.” 

QUOTABLE 

“There’s no easy exit out of the NCAA Tournament.” 

-- Billy Donovan 

THIS & THAT

Florida made 20-of-27 free throws in the second- and-third round of the NCAA Tournament, but the Gators still rank No. 280 nationally (66.3 percent) in overall percentage and the charity stripe may loom large down the stretch. UCLA is very good free throw shooting team, finishing the season No. 21 (74.9 percent) nationally. … UCLA is 14-7 against RPI top-100 teams. … Donovan is 6-1 in the Sweet 16, winning six-straight since 1999. 

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March 26, 2014

Muschamp Musings: Driskel standing out, depth at WR & more

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Live from Blues City, where the top-seeded Gators will meet with the media later this afternoon before they tangle with fourth-seeded UCLA tomorrow night in the Fed-Ex Forum (approx. 9:45 p.m., CBS).

But first: SPRING FOOTBALL!!!

Coverage has been minimal due to hoops, but coach Will Muschamp met with the media Tuesday and discussed a number of topics.

Here are the pertinent details. 

DRISKEL SEPARATING FROM THE PACK

Following a dismal 4-8 season, Muschamp pronounced every position -- including quarterback -- was open this spring, but the forgone conclusion was that redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Driskel would regain his starting job upon returning from his broken leg.

For all intents and purposes, he has -- just unofficially.

On Tuesday, Muschamp said Driskel, "comfortable and confident" in Kurt Roper’s up-tempo scheme, has “distanced himself from the other quarterbacks” during spring practice.

Driskel’s mechanics have been a tad rusty early in camp, but the quarterback’s experience and duel-threat skill-set has worked seamlessly in the premature stages of installing Roper’s spread offense.

“I’ve been very pleased with his maturity and handling it,” Muschamp said.

“He’s running well, he’s moving it around well. The ankle is not bothering him as far as those things are concerned. I think continuing just to work on the fundamentals because he really didn’t throw much to my knowledge until we started practice, so he was just cleared right before spring was concerned as far as all of the movement stuff is concerned.”

While Driskel has the leg-up in the pseudo quarterback race, Muschamp said sophomore Skyler Morhinweg, who started the final three games in 2013, and star-recruit Will Grier are competing well.  

“But those guys have done some nice things at times,” Muschamp said. “Jeff’s been through change before, so I think the more times you go through that stuff you kind of can handle it and move forward, the maturity takes over. Everything is brand new to Will.”

RECIEVER … DEPTH???

Florida’s wide receiver corps has been a position of grand ineptitude in recent years, a much-maligned unit on a historically bumbling offense.

But according to Muschamp, the situation is primed to change this season.

Florida's current assemblage of wideouts is the most talented group he’s had at Florida, he said, adding, “I don’t think there’s any question.”

Muschamp noted six contributors -- senior Quinton Dunbar, juniors Latroy Pittman and Valdez Showers and sophomores Ahmad Fulwood, Demarcus Robinson and Chris Thompson -- standing out in practice and capable of producing come fall.  

“All of those guys have shown some flashes and done some nice things through four days, and had good off-seasons as well,” he said.

Muschamp also highlighted the play of preferred walk-on receiver Case Harrison, a local product from Gainesville High School.

INJURY UPDATE

Senior linebacker Neiron Ball, a projected starter at outside linebacker, will likely miss the remainder of spring practice with a sprained MCL.

According to Muschamp, Ball is “fine” and “probably could [participate] in the latter part [of camp] but we feel like some other guys need reps.”

Meanwhile, redshirt freshman linebacker Jordan Sherit (hyper-extended right elbow), sophomore safety Keanu Neal (hamstring) and freshman offensive lineman Roderick Johnson (concussion) all missed practice Monday with minor injuries.

Sherit will work non-contact until next week, while Johnson -- who is competing for a starting job at guard -- is expected to return to practice Friday. 

THIS & THAT

Sensational sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is taking on an increased leadership roll in the locker room, Muschamp said. … Freshmen defensive backs Duke Dawson and Jalen Tabor, early enrollees, are competing for a starting job opposite of Hargreaves. … Former Gators quarterback Shane Matthews attended practice Monday and Muschamp said the 13-year NFL veteran was impressed with Roper as a position coach/teacher. … Muschamp noted the play of end Bryan Cox Jr. and tackle Jay-nard Bostwick as two defensive linemen standing out in camp. 

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March 25, 2014

Donovan nets raise, 3-year extension

GAINESVILLE -- Billy Donovan isn’t going anywhere.

Florida’s veteran coach signed a three-year contract extension through 2018-19, bumping his annual salary to $3.68 million over the next five years.

Florida will pay Donovan close to $4 million this season after he received a $250,000 longevity bonus earlier in March, according to contract details released Tuesday.  

During is 18 seasons in Gainesville, Florida’s coached has revolutionized Gators basketball, leading UF to two national championships, three Final Fours and 14 NCAA Tournament appearances.

The Gators -- who punched their fourth-consecutive Sweet 16 ticket last Saturday and will face fourth-seeded UCLA in Memphis, Tenn. on Thursday (9:45 p.m., CBS) -- own the nation’s longest active winning streak at 28 straight.

Under terms of his new deal, Donovan no longer has a non-compete clause in his contract but he still must receive “express written consent” from athletic director Jeremy Foley before speaking with either an NBA franchise or another collegiate institution.

Donovan’s base salary will remain at $220,000 but his activities agreement increased by roughly $100,000.  

Donovan’s (highly-incentivized) postseason benefits did not change with the new contract.

As with the old deal, Donovan earns $37,000 for making the NCAA Tournament with triggered increases for reaching the Sweet 16 and Final Four. Donovan would earn a $150,000 bonus for winning the NCAA Championship.

Donovan has already racked up bonus cash this postseason, earning $250,000 for reaching the Sweet 16, winning the SEC, winning AP coach of the year and finishing in the Associate Press Top 10.

While the timing seems a bit reactive to last week's news of Donovan's "NBA intrigue," via multiple reports, Donovan agreed the contract during the summer but it wasn’t finalized until last month.

Last week, a trip to Orlando spurred memories of when Donovan spurned the Magic in 2007. Florida's coach agreed on a contract, only to change his mind and later walk away.

While Donovan wouldn’t commit to staying with the Gators forever, he was adamant there's no place he rather be right now. 

“When you say a lifer, that means to me I'm never, every going to go anywhere and be there,” Donovan said.

“Who knows?  They may get sick of me at Florida and want me to move on.  But I don't like coming out making bold predictions or statements.  I would say right now I'm extremely happy with my life right now at the University of Florida.”

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March 24, 2014

NCAA Notebook: Wilbekin fine, SEC success & Bruce Pearl

 

GAINESVILLE -- Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin is “good to go” after knocking knees with a Pittsburgh player late in Florida’s 61-45 win over the Panthers on Saturday in Orlando.

“My knee feels fine,” said Wilbekin, who fueled the top-seeded Gators to their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 with a game-high 21 points.

The Southeastern Conference Player of the Year was forced to miss the final minute of action with the injury, but called it simply “a bruise.”

Coach Billy Donovan expects Wilbekin to practice normally, adding, “There's no issues right now, at least that I've been aware of or made aware of as it relates to him going forward.”

The Gators (33-2) will tangle with the fourth-seeded UCLA Bruins on Thursday (9:45 p.m., CBS) in the South Regional Semifinals in Memphis, Tenn. 

SEC! SEC! SEC!

Much was made over the SEC’s weakness as a major hoops conference this season, but with three Sweet 16 teams -- top-seeded Florida, ninth-seeded Kentucky and 11th-seeded Tennessee -- the league is slowly altering public perception.

While UK and UT are suddenly playing to peak potential, Donovan believes the conference’s reputation -- past and present -- has been overblown all along.

“I think our league can play with any league in the country,” UF’s coach said.

“But I would say this, and I've said this before:  Just because a certain league teams get knocked out early doesn't mean the league is overrated, and because a league really, really advances in the tournament doesn't mean the league is great.  I just get upset when all of a sudden everybody just throws out and makes assumptions or draws conclusions of a league being good or bad based on what's happened in the non‑conference.  That to me is, I think, somewhat unfair.”

The SEC -- aside from Florida and Kentucky -- was pitiful during non-conference play in November and December, de-valuing its reputation across the country with poor scheduling and inexplicable losses.

But the league is undefeated in the NCAA Tournament (7-0) -- the best record for a conference entering the Regional Semifinals since the Big East in 2003 (8-0).

“It’s pretty cool to see three SEC teams in the Sweet 16,” Wilbekin said. “All I heard all year was that the SEC was down and it was weak.”

Donovan acknowledged matchups are key in single-elimination tournaments but that leagues shouldn’t be measured solely on postseason successes or failures. 

“I think if everybody in the SEC was out of the tournament, they'd say, ‘See, I told you the league is no good,’” Donovan explained. 

“Now we've got some teams advancing: ‘Wow, the league must be really, really underrated.’ Sometimes it has to do with matchups, sometimes it has to do with who you're playing against; sometimes it has to do with how well you're playing. There's a lot of variables that go into winning in postseason.”

THOUGHTS ON PEARL

While some league coaches have shied away from commenting on Bruce Pearl’s return to the SEC, Donovan called Auburn’s hiring “good for the league.”

The Tigers poached Pearl from ESPN last week, several months before the former Tennessee coach’s three-year NCAA show cause expires.

“I had a chance to talk to Bruce,” Donovan said.  “He had called me and we had talked a little bit.  I'm happy for him.  I think just being in the league with him for that long and kept in touch with him the three years he was out, and I think for him it was ‑‑ he went through a lot of difficulty personally internally.  I think it was really hard on him.”

The Volunteers fired Pearl in March 2011 after he lied to NCAA investigators and the program was hit with minor sanctions.

“He's an outstanding coach,” Donovan said. I think Bruce coming in will do a great job.  He'll certainly bring energy and enthusiasm to the league, to Auburn, and I'm happy for him if that's what he wants to do.”

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#itsgreatUF

Screen shot 2014-03-24 at 2.56.01 PM

 

Just ... WOW.

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March 23, 2014

Florida-UCLA meet (again for the first time for the last time) in Sweet 16

GAINESVILLE -- For the fourth time since 2006, Florida and UCLA will battle in the NCAA Tournament. 

The top-seeded Gators (33-2) and fourth-seeded Bruins (28-8) will square off Thursday (9;45 p.m., CBS) in the South Regional Semifinals in Memphis, Tenn. (FedEx Forum) with a chance to advance to the Elite Eight. 

UCLA -- Pac-12 Tournament champions -- demolished 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin 77-60 on Sunday night, advancing to its first regional semifinals since 2008. 

But Florida has been nothing but heartbreak for college basketball's most historic program. 

The Gators, winners of a nation's-best 28 straight, trumped the Bruins in all three tournament match-ups -- highlighted by Florida's back-to-back wins in the 2006 NCAA Championship game (73-57) and 2007 Final Four (77-66). 

Florida also topped UCLA 73-65 in the Round of 32 in 2011. 

The Bruins are led by first-year coach Steve Alford, who bolted New Mexico to replace the fired Ben Howland during the offseason.

UCLA is an electric offensive team (81.7 points per game, No. 12 AdjO according to KenPom.com) powered by sensational sophomores Jordan Adams (17.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.7 spg) and Kyle Anderson (14.7 ppg, 6.6 apg), but the Bruins must hope the fourth time's a charm to finally top No. 1 Florida and its ferocious  defense.

More tomorrow, but first the clip teased in the headline. 

Enjoy. 

 

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March 22, 2014

Sweetness: Gators, Panthers react to Florida's 28th straight win

I(Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young | Courtesy AP Photo/John Raoux)

ORLANDO -- The top-seeded Gators waved farewell to the Sunshine State in style Saturday afternoon, smothering 9th-seeded Pittsburgh into submission for a 61-45 victory in front of a sellout, pro-Gators crowd inside the Amway Center.

“How sweet it is,” assistant coach Matt McCall shouted in the locker room.

Florida won its 28th straight game, punching its fourth consecutive ticket to the Sweet 16. 

The Gators will face the winner of Sunday’s game between 4th-seed UCLA and 12th-seed Stephen F. Austin on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn. 

Here's some notable quotes from the locker room. 

"We weren't going to let them to play harder than us.”

-- Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who paced Florida with a game-high 21 points. 

“At this point I’m happy to get out this gym. That’s the name of the game though. Some shots are going to go in. Some aren’t. I took good shots tonight. I can’t control whether the ball goes in or not because if I could every shot would go in.” 

-- Sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II, on shooting just 4-for-15 in two games at Amway Arena 

“When you have a guy like that you just give him the ball and move out of his way. ... He was hot. He gave us an offensive boost. We needed it.” 

-- Frazier, on Wilbekin's big night. 

"I thought our defense in particular, both halves it was good, but I thought in the second half it really, really was good, and these guys did a really terrific job from start to finish."

-- Gators coach Billy Dononvan, on UF's splendid defensive effort.  

"The three they hit was one of those things that could've easily been prevented if he would've executed what coach (Jamie Dixon) wanted. Coach wanted us to foul him before he could get close to taking a shot."

-- Panthers forward Michael Young, on Wilbekin's running, halftime buzzer-beater. 

"Florida is the most physical team we've play all year. They beat us on the glass and beat us to loose balls. We have to give them credit."

-- Panthers head coach Jamie Dixon, on UF's hustle.  

"If we would’ve brought [UF's relentless hustle] to the first game would’ve been drastically different. Our mindset, effort, focus on the defensive end was just unprecedented. That’s how we want to be every single night."

-- Florida center Patric Young, on UF's relentless hustle  

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March 21, 2014

NCAA Notebook: Frazier frustrated, aberrations & more

ORLANDO -- Michael Frazier II provides instant offense for the top-seeded Gators and opponents have taken note – aggravatingly so for Florida’s prolific outside shooter.

UF’s sophomore sniper, averaging 12.6 points and three treys a game, was mostly a frustrated decoy Thursday afternoon, as Albany clamped down on the nation’s ninth-best three-point shooter (45 percent).

The Great Danes held Frazier to just 1-of-5 from the field, blanketing the sophomore with multiple defenders by utilizing a triangle-and-two defense to freeze out Florida’s lone consistent long distance threat.

Three years ago, former Butler coach Brad Stevens employed a similar strategy when his Bulldogs shocked the Gators in overtime in the Elite Eight, but Florida actually took advantage of the space in the paint on Thursday.  

“I think the greatest sign of respect for me as a coach is when somebody says to a player, we're going to take that player out of the game,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. 

“It was a game where because of the way they guarded Frazier, because of the way they guarded [Scottie] Wilbekin, there were a lot of other things open, especially inside and around the basket that I thought we took advantage of.”

Although Frazier was visibly upset after the lackluster victory, Donovan cooled the sophomore’s temperature with an anecdote that resonated with the entire team.

“Coach [Donovan] talked to the team after the game and told a story about when he was a player a Providence and they were playing Georgetown,” UF assistant Matt McCall explained. 

“Going into the year, Coach was leading the NCAA Tournament in scoring, getting like 30 [points] a game, and Georgetown said, 'Hey we're going to take Billy Donovan out of the game.' They did and he only took two shots but [Providence] won by 18. So you take it as a sign of a team having respect for you. And if they're going to take that much focus on you and take you out of the game, other things for other guys are going to open up.”

Bingo. 

Florida was forced to turn to other options, and Kasey Hill, Dorian Finney-Smith and others carried the load but Frazier may have a chance to get back on track against Pitt. 

While the Panthers play a stingy, tenacious half-court defense, they’re not particularly adept at guarding the three-point line (No. 100 nationally in three-point defense) -- something coach Jamie Dixon is openly concerned about.

"If [Frazier] makes of couple of shots he can break a game open," Dixon said.

"He's their best shooter, best perimeter threat and shoots a high percentage from 3.”

Frazier drilled three early treys against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament title game, pacing the Gators early. But while the sophomore wants “his,” he’s more concerned with winning.

“[Albany] was determined to not to let [me] beat them, so it opened up things for other guys,” he said. “[Pittsburgh’s] defense is different, so we'll have some open looks in other areas.”

ABERRATION(S)?

Pitt smoked Colorado on Thursday, drubbing the Buffalos by 29-points in its most dominant (and complete) performance this season. Meanwhile, the Gators struggled for 35 minutes against overmatched Albany.

Will the two teams deviate towards their norm tomorrow?

We’ll see.

The Panthers have competed well against ranked teams (three losses by a combined 10 points), but they simply haven’t beaten many (1-4 record).

Despite a 2-15 all-time record against the No. 1 team in the country, they remain confident they can pull off the upset.

“We're playing good basketball right now,” said forward Lamar Patterson, Pitt’s leading scorer at 17.4 points per game.

“We'll know if we're playing our best basketball on Saturday.  … Right now is the perfect time to be making strides toward the best you can possibly be, and I feel like that's what we're doing as a team.”

QUOTABLE

“In the South, okay, football is the passion.  It's never changing.  It's just the way it is.  Okay, and I've done nothing since I've been at Florida but try to embrace that because I really believe in the fall there's not a greater place to be than on our campus when there's a football game going on. That being said, I do think that there is an incredible affinity in the state and nationally for the University of Florida, and I always look at, right now, one, the support administratively, the support by fans, what our building is like, what the commitment has been, and I think our commitment and our support has been as good as anywhere in the country, and I think there's a lot of people that are involved with that.”

-- Donovan, on Florida as a football school vs. a basketball school

THIS & THAT

Pitt holds a plus-6.3 rebounding margin, tops in the ACC. … The Panthers, who rarely faced an aggressive press in the ACC, also led the conference in assists per game (15.6) and Donovan called them, “An outstanding passing team.” … After shooting just 50 percent from the charity stripe in the SEC Tournament, Florida was 14-for-18 (77.8 percent) against Albany.  … Donovan said freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who scored 10 points in his first-career NCAA Tournament game, is “fine” and has no lingering issues with his toe injury. … Florida’s four seniors are just one win away from setting the school-record for most wins by a single class.  … Pitt topped Albany 58-46 earlier this season, allowing just 18 points in the first half. However, the Panthers’ 12-point margin was the same as Florida’s final margin against the Great Danes.  

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

Donovan confesses NBA "intrigue"

ORLANDO -- Billy Donovan is happy in Gainesville, very happy in fact, but No. 1 Florida's coach acknowledged the next logical step on the coaching ladder still "intrigues" him.

“To me the NBA part of it for me is ‑‑ it's all basketball,” Donovan explained. 

“I got into coaching because of the basketball piece of it, and there is an intrigue as it relates to that.  One of the things that I think I've learned, when you try to project where your future is, where you're going to be, and you don't know because I don't have a crystal ball, all I can say is I am happy here at Florida.  I love being here.”

A trip to Orlando has spurred memories of when Donovan spurned the Magic in 2007. Florida's coach agreed on a contract, only to change his mind and later walk away.

Donovan has remained at UF ever since -- 18 seasons since first accepting the job in 1996. 

“It was just something internally I felt like this was where I needed to be,” said Donovan, remarking on his change of heart in 2007.

“Who knows where I'd be right now.  I don't know.  Maybe TV, maybe sitting on a beach somewhere? I don't know.  I'm excited that I'm still at Florida and still having a chance to coach, and I'm happy that making that decision there's been a lot of things that I've had a chance to experience.”

Although Donovan wouldn’t commit to staying with the Gators forever, he was adamant he’s quite content -- for now.

“When you say a lifer, that means to me I'm never, every going to go anywhere and be there,” Donovan said.

“Who knows?  They may get sick of me at Florida and want me to move on.  But I don't like coming out making bold predictions or statements.  I would say right now I'm extremely happy with my life right now at the University of Florida.”

And for that, Gators fans are extremely thankful. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

March 20, 2014

NCAA Notebook: Gators "survive", Frazier contained & more

I(Courtesy Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

ORLANDO -- It was supposed to be easy, but it wasn’t.

Top-seeded Florida dispatched a scrappy 16-seeded Albany 67-55 Thursday afternoon in the Amway Center, avoiding a monumental upset as its road to the Final Four started out much rockier than anticipated.  

The Southeastern Conference Champions -- winners of a school-record 27 straight games and top-overall seed in the NCAA Tournament -- survived a scare from the American East Champions, but you wouldn’t have known it postgame.

Florida’s locker room felt like a funeral, and a despondent group acknowledged they must play better.

Fast. 

"I think we should look at this game as a blessing,” senior center Patric Young said.

“We can't have this same type of energy going into the next game, this same type of mindset or focus, whatever it was. We have to flush that and just remember that we have to be somebody we have been the whole year going into the next game. Hopefully learning from this game will help us do that next game.”

Florida was “out of sync” all afternoon, as senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said the team lacked energy, focus and connectivity from the start.

Coach Billy Donovan told the team afterwards they “were lucky to get one more.”

“He said if we play like we did tonight then that will be the last one we get,” Wilbekin explained.

“We just got to flush this game and get ready for Pittsburgh.”

FRAZIER SILENCED

Sophomore sniper Michael Frazier, Florida's third-leading scorer, hit a trey for the 18th straight game, but the prolific shooter struggled to generate many looks from behind the arc (1-for-4).

The Gators, bottled up by the Great Danes’ stingy (ever-changing) zone defenses, hit just 3-of-13 three-pointers -- their fewest treys since Feb. 15 at Kentucky. 

“We played a lot of junk defenses,” Albany coach Will Brown said. “The triangle-and-two, diamand-and-one, matchup zone, we just wanted to know where [Frazier] was at all times.

“We had all sorts of names for him: Ray Allen, Jesus Shuttlesworth. He has the smoothest stroke since Ray Allen. We were determined not to let him get a free look.”

ERVING WALKER 2.0?

The Great Danes had their own Mighty Mouse and he nearly sparked the upset.

DJ Evans -- Albany’s 5-foot-9 point guard -- scored a game-high 21 points (6-for-12, 2-of-5 from behind the arc) while taking a beating in the process.

Evans, who had ice wrapped on his elbow postgame, took a knee the head at one point and later crashed to the floor following a nifty shot-fake.

It was a valiant effort by a tough little guy.

“I have a lot of bumps and bruises,” Evans said. “It was a dog-fight. I just didn’t want to let my teammates down.”

QUOTABLE

“You see the size of Patric Young? If he couldn’t make it in the NBA he’s going to have a shot in the NFL. If he doesn’t go to the NFL, he’ll be in the WWE. If he doesn’t go there, maybe UCF. I mean, that guy is enormous.”

-- Brown, on Florida’s size and athleticism

THIS & THAT

Young added 10 points and 10 rebounds, finishing with his first double-double in 45 games and 11th of his career. … The Gators had five scorers in double figures: Casey Prather (16), Young (10), Wilbekin (10), Kasey Hill (10) and Dorian Finney-Smith (16). Prather also added three blocks (tying a career-high) and two steals. … Donovan was named one of five finalists for the Naismith Coach of the Year award, given to the nation’s top head coach.

For more, a notebook, checkout all the latest action from the NCAA Tournament: Today's gamer on Florida's too-close-for-comfort victory, a sidebar on two reserves playing key roles and a column outling UF's chase for greatness. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

March 19, 2014

NCAA Notebook: Key contributor questionable?

ORLANDO -- Freshman point guard Kasey Hill will be a game-time decision for Florida’s tournament opener against 16-seed Albany (4:10 p.m., TBS), the school announced Wednesday.

Hill, who is averaging 5.9 points and 3.1 assists as Scottie Wilbekin’s backup, is battling turf toe and will be re-evaluated Thursday morning during Florida’s team shoot-around.

The Umatilla native participated in Wednesday’s open practice and displayed no visible limp during the workout, but the McDonald’s All-American did miss seven games this season with various injuries (ankle, groin).

WELCOME BACK

Orlando is a homecoming of sorts for several Gators, including fan-favorite walk-on Jake “The Snake” Kurtz.

Kurtz, who starred at Hagerty under Josh Kone, said the return to Orlando is “really cool.”

“I grew up a Magic fan, 15-minutes away from here. This is a thrill,” he said.

Kurtz’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament wasn’t so pleasant though.

In 2011, when the Gators faced Virginia (and later Norfolk State) in Omaha, Nebraska, Kurtz didn’t have a seat on the bench.

Tomorrow he may have a chance to play.

“The seats get cut down in the NCAA Tournament,” Kurtz explained, acknowledging the situation was “a bummer.”  “I wasn’t able to sit [with the team]. That was the first experience I had with the tournament. … I’d love to play. Everyone wants to play, but I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing if we win, and I don’t. I’m ok as long as we keep moving on.”

MASTER AND HIS PUPIL(S)

While fans across the country are upset with Louisville's seeding, coach Rick Pitino is frustrated with his team's opponent. 

Pitnio criticized the NCAA selection committee for pitting his Cardinals against Manhattan, coached by protégée and longtime friend Steve Masiello.

But while Louisville's Hall of Fame coach is upset about facing off against Masiello, Pitino effusively sang the praises of another former star pupil also in Orlando: Florida coach Billy Donovan.

“Billy the Kid to me is one of the most special people in my life. I’ve said this, [former Cardinals point guard] Peyton Siva and Donovan were two of the most special people I’ve ever coached. I could never find a character flaw in them,” Pitino said.

Then the eulogizing continued. 

“There’s no finer person I’ve met in my life,” he said. “He’s just the most special human being I’ve ever encountered in my lifetime. He never changed. Success hasn’t changed him. Adversity hasn’t changed him.”

Donovan, who’s built his own expansive coaching tree including Shaka Smart (VCU), Anthony Grant (Alabama), Donnie Jones (UCF) and Larry Shyatt (Wyoming), boasted on Pitino’s ability to develop assistants into quality head coaches.

“When I was 24 years old, I was forced to scout.  I was forced to coach.  I was forced to teach.  I was forced to break down film,” Donovan explained. “I was forced to make decisions.  There was not any area of coaching when I was with Coach Pitino that I was not exposed to, and it was challenging, it was demanding, and it made me better. I really felt even though I was 28-years-old and took over at Marshall, I didn't feel like I was unprepared, or geez, this is overwhelming.  Not at all, and I think that had everything to do with Coach Pitino in terms of preparing us, and I hope in some way what he did for me I can do the same thing for my guys that are assistant coaches and move on to head coaching positions, is to get them prepared as much as I can.”

QUOTABLE

"It seems like a long time ago.  I've got great respect for the Magic and for this organization, for the people running it.  I'm excited to be at Florida.  When I went back, I knew we were going to have to rebuild.  We lost a lot of personnel, and it's been challenging, it's been rewarding.  There's been peaks and valleys.  There's been ups and downs.  But I'm proud of what our team has done to get to this point.  We're happy that we can certainly stay here in the state of Florida and the city of Orlando to play in the tournament. But for me, I think that's over and done with, and I've kind of moved on from it."

--- Donovan, on returning to Orlando for the first time since renegging on Magic job in 2007. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

Will Florida's free throw woes sink possible title-team?

GAINESVILLE -- The top-ranked Gators -- media darlings to win to 2014 NCAA Tournament -- have aced nearly every test this season, but Billy Donovan's senior-laden squad does have a scarlet-shortcoming that could torpedo its title hopes.

No. 1 Florida (32-2), which opens the second-round Thursday in Orlando (4:10 p.m., TBS) against play-in winner Albany, ranks as the nation's No. 289 team in free throw shooting at 66. 1 percent -- ninth-worst in the tournament’s field of 68.

While the cure-all for Florida's habitual slow starts has seemingly amounted to a halftime-dousing of Michael Jordan's "Secret Stuff," Donovan has found no remedy for UF's woes at the charity stripe.

"We’ve got to do a better job there," Donovan acknowledged.

"We were doing really, really well for a while there. One of the things that happened is we did work on it some, but we’ve got to spend more time on that. That has to be an emphasis and focal point for us. We’ve shown the ability and the potential to shoot the ball well. There’s been numerous games where we come down the stretch of games and gone 10-for-11, we’ve made 16 out of 18. There’s been some good stretches."

But others have been wretched.

The Gators shot a woeful 50 percent (27 of 54) over three games in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, nearly coughing up a championship with a 7-for-17 performance against Kentucky in the finals.

"We just going to have to put in more work," said forward Dorian Finney-Smith, who missed the front-end of a one-and-one with 20 seconds remaining against the Wildcats as Florida clung to its one-point lead. 

"I didn't even notice we missed that many free throws, but now that I know the stats we got to do a lot better than that."

Florida -- which proved capable at the charity stripe during a stretch in mid-February, shooting 79-percent in four games decided by single-digits -- must buck history if it’s going to capture its third national championship since 2006.

The last NCAA team to shoot under 70 percent and win a national championship was Florida in 2006-07, joining 2004 Connecticut as just the second school over the past decade (2004-2013) to do so.

"It's an area we’ve got to get better," Donovan said. "Certainly that three-game stretch from us was not a great stretch at all."

The Gators have just two players -- senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (72.6 percent) and sophomore swingman Michael Frazier II (83.6 percent) -- who shoot north of 67 percent but Wilbekin was just 1-for-6 at the line during the SEC Tournament.

“Obviously we want to make those free throws, but we did a good job focusing on the next play,” he said.

Florida may run out of “next plays” in the NCAA Tournament though. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

Spring practice primer: A six-pack of questions as Florida opens camp

GAINESVILLE -- Florida football kicks-off spring camp this afternoon, opening the first of nine practices at 3:35 p.m. inside the Sanders Fields.

The Gators -- who will practice 15 times between today and April 12th’s Orange & Blue Debut -- hope to slowly start to wash away the stains from their abominable 2013 campaign and the worst season (4-8) in Gainesville in 35 years.  

Naturally, it’s a big spring for embattled coach Will Muschamp -- who’s stink has been Febreze’d a bit thanks to the success of Florida’s top-ranked hoops team.

But can Muschamp maintain his (newfound) fresh fragrance? We’ll see.

The Gators (seriously) boast one of the nation’s most talented teams but question marks remain abound. From sorting out jumbled positions to answering key concerns for an irritated fan base, it’s an important month for Florida football.  

*************** SIX STORYLINES TO FOLLOW ***************

1. Can new coordinator Kurt Roper’s rebuild UF’s offense? [BONUS Q’S] How fast will Florida’s players grasp the new system, and what will Roper’s tempo-attack look like with (under-developed) four- and-five-star players?

The Gators ranked No. 113 nationally in total offense last year, replacing two offensive coaches 24-hours into the offseason. Roper’s success (or lack their of) will likely determine Muschamp’s future at Florida -- so no pressure on Duke’s former quarterbacks guru. While spring practice won’t ultimately determine Florida’s 2014 fate, quality work would certainly be advantageous.

2. Will Jeff Driskel sink or swim?

Florida pushed back spring practice specifically so its redshirt junior quarterback would be fully recovered from his broken leg. The Gators’ enigmatic signal caller is working under his third offensive coordinator -- and third different system -- in four years, but Roper’s no-huddle spread is specifically tailored to Driskel skill-set. With a pair of talented freshmen waiting in the wings, it’s put up or shut-up time for JD.  

3. Who -- if anyone -- will emerge along the offensive line and at wide receiver and tight end?

Driskel needs help, lots of help. Florida’s offensive line was a disaster last year, as the Gators shuffled the deck more than a Jumbotron hat game. Injuries were a major factor, but a lack of development (see: Humphries, D.J.) and positional fit (see: Moore, Tyler) were key issues as well. At wideout, (the forever uninspiring) Quinton Dunbar returns as the team’s leading receiver, but the rest of the group is largely unknown, high on potential yet low on progress.  Meanwhile, Florida has a dearth of talent at tight end, problematic considering the way Roper likes to utilize the position in the passing game.

4. What will the Gators’ secondary look like?

Florida must replace four (sometimes) valuable contributors from its vaunted defensive backfield. Although Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson underwhelmed last season, the duo still made plays, as did the much-steadier performing Jaylen Watkins. Adding Cody Rigss’ transfer to Notre Dame, UF has a pair of openings at safety for the second straight spring. Marcus Maye, Keanu Neal and Jabari Gorman will compete for playing time, while Marcell Harris could be in the mix as well. Meanwhile, five-star early enrollee Jaylen Tabor is expected to fight for a starting job at cornerback opposite Florida’s top overall returning player: Vernon Hargreaves III.

5. Who will star (and will they have any staying-power?)

It’s a yearly tradition at Florida: spring stars = fall frauds. Over the past several seasons, Demarcus Robinson, Jabari Gorman (two years ago), Quinton Dunbar, Latroy Pittman, Gideon Ajagbe (on defense) and many, many others have shined in spring camp only to disappear (for a multitude of reasons) when the games actually count. Obviously this question cannot be answered in a month, but if guys like Adam Lane, Alvin Bailey or Jay-nard Bostwick go off in March, it’s best to temper all future expectations. 

6. How hungry are these Gators?

The entire program was embarrassed about its first losing season since 1979.  The pervasive truth last fall was that the team succumbed to a “woe is me” mentality, Florida’s very own Krokodil. Have attitudes changed? Muschamp says his players should never forget last season, using their failures to fuel the fire. Undoubtedly, the players will say all the right things this spring, but it’s their actions during practice that will tell a better story.

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

March 17, 2014

Wet & Wild: Gators Pro Day (as told via Twitter)

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GAINESVILLE -- Confession: I was not at Florida's 2014 Pro Day on a soggy and cold Monday morning in Gainesville. 

Sleep deprived after arriving home from the Southeastern Conference tournament in the wee hours Monday, I missed the annual event (traditionally) held in The Swamp. 

But fear not, others were there to document a rainy day full of NFL personnel and a dozen former Florida players working out, highlighted by its three ballyhooed cornerbacks -- Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins -- and former No. 1 overall recruit DE/LB Ronald Powell. 

Without further adieu, Florida's Pro Day as told on Twitter.

AN OMINOUS START...

Screen shot 2014-03-17 at 11.57.57 PM

YET SOLID ATTENDANCE...

Screen shot 2014-03-17 at 11.59.25 PMBUT MOSTLY JOKES...

Screen shot 2014-03-18 at 12.01.16 AM

Screen shot 2014-03-18 at 12.03.57 AM

SOME PROSPECTS SHINED...

Screen shot 2014-03-17 at 10.15.40 PMScreen shot 2014-03-17 at 10.43.11 PM

WHILE OTHERS DID NOT...

Screen shot 2014-03-17 at 10.49.44 PM

Screen shot 2014-03-17 at 10.47.49 PM

STILL, NO EXCUSES...

Screen shot 2014-03-18 at 12.00.20 AM

SO THERE YOU HAVE IT. FLORIDA'S 2014 PRO DAY -- OR SOMETHING...

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton 

Gators reap rewards following historic regular season

GAINESVILLE -- Florida -- the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament -- finished the regular season as the top-ranked team in the Associated Press poll for the first time in school history, collecting several additional awards in the process.

The Gators (32-2) have never opened the tournament as the nation's No. 1 ranked team, but they will do so Thursday (4 p.m., TBS) when they take on the winner of Tuesday's play-in game between Mount St. Mary's (16-16) and Albany (18-14).

"We got a number one seed. Now that the seeding is set, the only thing that matters is playing well and putting yourself in a position to win and advance,” coach Billy Donovan said Monday.  

“We’re excited to be in the tournament. We’re excited for another opportunity to play but the number one seed, the overall seed, whatever it is, it’s great. But that’s a reflection of what’s happened from November all the way to here in March. Once the brackets are out and you’re playing, seedings and things like that, players aren’t thinking about that. They’re thinking about playing and competing and playing to the best of their ability.”

Meanwhile, senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin was named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and Donovan was named the SEC Coach of the Year for the second straight season, the AP announced Monday.

"I’m sure maybe when we lose, I get maybe too much blame and when we win I probably get maybe too much praise," Donovan said.

"But the thing that I’ve always looked at is whether or not I get credit, what kind of impact I have made in those guys’ lives?"

Donovan led the Gators to the greatest season in SEC history, capping a 21-0 run through league play with a dramatic tournament title over rival Kentucky.

Wilbekin, who was named the MVP of the SEC Tournament after averaging 13.3 points, 3.0 assists and 3.3 steals over three games, was a unanimous All-SEC first-team selection and was joined by Gators forward Casey Prather.

Senior center Patric Young was an All-SEC second-team honoree.

Last week, SEC coaches named Wilbekin the player of the year and Donovan the league's coach of the year.

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton